Evaluation of Pelletized Poultry Litter to Improve Specialty Crop Production in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-388

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,944.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Candace DeLong
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to evaluate the feasibility of producing a value-added fertilizer from different WV sourced poultry litter from two production areas.  We seek to determine the suitability of broiler litter and turkey litter for pelleting. We seek to generate six tons of pellets, three tons from each bird type. This organic fertilizer will be packaged in regionally and bird type-specific forty-pound bags to promote marketing to the retail sector. We seek to offer these bags to agricultural and lawn and garden retail outlets to gauge product acceptance with growers and gardeners.  We seek to introduce this product to high tunnel and specialty crop growers in the state. To promote the marketability of the product, we will conduct fertilizer response trials to determine the nutrient availability during a growing season. These trials will be conducted with partnership growers.  We seek to determine the level of pathogen reduction from the pelleting process. We seek to provide outreach to producers with potential interest in the product, and the acceptance of the product to the poultry producing companies.


Poultry litter has been proven as an excellent nutrient source for crop production.  Especially, on farms that are deficient in phosphorus.  A common analysis of poultry would yield nutrient levels approximately 50-75-40-6 per ton, representing nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and sulfur.  These analyses can be extremely variable depending on feed source, bedding used, length of time to raise the birds, types of birds raised among other aspects.

Commercial poultry production in West Virginia is located in two geographic regions.  In the northeastern portion of the state broiler production is the dominant industry.  In 2019 WV ranked 17th in broiler production, totaling 75 million birds produced.  The majority of the production is based in a five-county area, with Hardy County, producing approximately half of total production as the other four.  The topography of the region is described as ridge and valley. Farms consist of either flat river bottoms or slopes greater than 15% that are used for pasture for livestock.  Thus, leading to a large amount of the cropland that has soil test phosphorus (P) levels in the excessive fertility range. Research has shown that there is a P saturation threshold level where soil changes from a sink for P to a source for P loss to the environment. Cropland soils are showing elevated saturation of P in these Chesapeake Bay counties.     

The Greenbrier Valley is located in the southeastern portion of the state.  This area has a different topography than the rest of the state due to its rolling hills with less slope and is approximately 50% wooded, compared to 80% statewide.  But, this location has karst topography, lending it to being environmentally fragile in regards to water and nutrient runoff.  Seed stock turkey production is the main industry located in this area.  Statistically, 3.1 million birds are produced in two counties, thus, ranking WV 13th in turkey production.  When evaluating soil test P levels phosphorus in this region is not as high, but with the karst, topography producers must remain environmentally conscious.  With a large number of poultry operations on a small acreage, and limited land available for spreading litter, soil test P levels are continuing to increase across the state where the poultry industry is located. 

In this proposal, we are requesting funding to pelletize litter and evaluate its characteristics before and after the pelletizing process.  Once the litter is in a pelletized form its bulk density will be decreased, which will allow for more efficient transportation of material. Poultry litter is an inconsistent product, with nutrient levels differing throughout the poultry house, due to the location of waterers and feeders.  A pelletizing process will allow for a more uniform consistency of the product.  Another issue that will be addressed by the project is moving nutrients from highly concentrated Phosphorus areas to lesser areas of concentration.  Within this project we also plan on promoting the pelleted material to high tunnel growers and home gardeners that are considering an organic source of nutrients. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Chico Ramirez and Mary Oldham - Producer
  • Hal Kreher - Technical Advisor
  • Mike Kwasnaski - Producer
  • Virginia Lamaster - Producer
  • Charles Moyer
  • Remington Perkins - Producer
  • Pam West - Producer
  • Jason Whitacre - Producer


Materials and methods:

Pellet Evaluation 

The initial objective is to generate two types of pelleted poultry litter, one from a turkey house in Greenbrier County, WV and the second from a broiler house in Hampshire County, WV.  Moisture levels of the poultry litter going into a pellet mill is critical to generating a quality product. Project farm members supplying poultry litter will turn piles causing the litter to reheat and lose moisture. Moisture data will be collected at each turning until levels are at 15 to 20%. Dried litter will be pelletized and evaluated for changes in bulk density, percentage of crumbles or litter not remaining in pelleted form, and pellet retention, durability and stability during storage and transportation. Pelleted poultry litter from operations in New York and Wisconsin will be evaluated in a side by side comparison with the WV generated pellets.  


Evaluation of Marketing Product

Half of our generated pelleted litter fertilizer, 3 tons will be reserved for a marketing evaluation. Project pellets will be packaged in 40-pound bags with regional branding, including Potomac Highlands WV Poultry Pellet fertilizer and Greenbrier Valley WV Poultry Pellet fertilizer. Bags will be distributed to two lawn and garden/agricultural retail centers. One location in a rural county and the other in an urban store. The 40-pound bags of pellets will be offered for sale during the spring planting season with a QR code label attached to each bag. With the QR code will be instructions requesting feedback via an online survey tool.  


Poultry Litter Pellet Fertility Response Trials

At each of our four specialty crop farms we will establish fertility response trials using high tunnel tomatoes as our target crop.  These trials will have four replications, 6 plants per replication and four treatments. Experimental design will be a randomized complete block.  Treatments will include the two WV generated pellets at two rates of fertility. A phosphorus sufficiency rate and nitrogen sufficiency rate.  Total yield and marketable tomato yield data will be collected. Changes in soil fertility will be monitored by sampling prior to treatment and at the end of each growing season. Data will be collected from two growing seasons.  Nitrogen uptake and sufficiency will be monitored during the harvest period using Spectrum Nitrate meters to evaluate sap nitrate levels.   Analysis of Variance will be used to determine the significance of the results. 


Evaluation of Pathogen destruction during Pellet Production


To determine the microbial composition of WV poultry litter and the resulting litter after it has been pelleted viable counts of bacteria will be cultured on selective media.  Target organisms include Salmonella sp. and Escherichia coli.  The 20 gram of poultry litter samples will be mixed 100 ml of buffered peptone water and stomached for 2 minutes. The filtered solution will be spread-plated onto XLT-4 and MacConkey agars for Salmonella and E.coli, respectively. Typical colonies from the plates will be further identified using latex agglutination test and multiple-channel biochemistry test such as Enterotube II and API 20e.


Statewide Survey of WV Gardeners and Farmers


A survey will be completed to determine the level of interest for adding pelletized poultry litter to gardens, pasture, or hay fertility programs. Using our WVU soil testing lab database, we will survey 11,000 customers using Qualtrics software to determine the interest in using a WV based organic fertilizer and how much these growers are willing to pay for this value-added product.  Qualtrics survey results will be analyzed and presented to poultry growers and poultry integrators in the two poultry growing areas in WV.


Research results and discussion:

January 2022 Update:

We are gearing up to begin our research. First, in the next few weeks, we plan on meeting with our grower-partners to determine the layout and the specific tomato cultivar that will be grown using the pelletized poultry litter. This meeting will also include details on the data to be collected from the trials, a general rundown of the research, and what to expect. 

Our plan for 2022, is to obtain the poultry litter, transport it to the pelletizing facility in New York and return the litter to West Virginia in custom bags ready to be distributed to our high tunnel growers and retail outlets. Our grower-partners will begin using the pelletized litter in trials during the 2023 growing season.

Research conclusions:

Research Conclusions TBD

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

WVU Extension has a unique opportunity to deliver program content to a diversified list of clientele and residents of West Virginia. The results of this poultry pellet study will be delivered to both a state and national audience that encompass 4 main target demographics. Poultry growers, high tunnel growers, backyard gardeners, and extension professionals.

A presentation on the project’s findings will be delivered to The West Virginia Poultry Association during their annual convention which is held in the last week of July each year in Moorefield WV. The association consists of producers, industry associates, and others around the state with affiliation to the poultry industry. The association currently consists of 350 members.

There are currently over 1200 high tunnels in WV. These producers grow utilizing many different production models. Many high tunnel producers, especially those that grow for farmers’ markets, choose to grow using organic management practices whenever possible. The opportunity to incorporate a local poultry litter pellet into their production model will be appealing for many of these producers. In order to showcase the project and its findings we will utilize our vegetable producers in the study and will hold a field day at each of the four partner farms. These producers are located in a manner that allows us to reach WV producers on a regional aspect in the north, south, central and Potomac Valley region of WV.  A presentation will also be delivered at the WV Small Farms Conference. This conference is attended by over 400 individuals representing producers, industry leaders, and extension professionals from West Virginia and surrounding states.

Lastly, a poster presentation will be submitted to the National Association of County Agricultural Agents for display at the National Meeting in July of 2024. 


January 2022 Update:

We are currently waiting to begin our research as the growing season begins. We fully plan on including all the outreach events mentioned in the above statement. 

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

January 2022 Update:

We plan to meet with our grower-partners in the upcoming weeks to discuss the use of the pelletized poultry litter in their tomato growing operations. Growers will receive pelletized poultry litter in the Fall of 2022 to use for growing tomatoes in 2023. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.